Lansing paid $0 in claims for pothole damage since 2007

LANSING, MICH. - He saw it coming, but that didn't matter.

The driver was headed toward a large pothole on South Pennsylvania Avenue, but said he couldn't swerve away because of oncoming traffic.

Related: Legal experts share tips for filing a pothole claim

The pothole, at least 10 inches deep and 4 feet across, blew out his front tire on April 7, 2017, according to a claim submitted by the man on May 2, requesting $634.09 in compensation from the city.

The city denied his claim, saying officials did not have "actual or constructive notice" of the pothole before the collision.

That outcome was far from unusual.

If a pothole damages your car on a city street, you have the option to request reimbursement from the city.

But likelihood of a payout is next to none.

Last fiscal year, the city paid $0 for pothole claims, according to records requested by the Lansing State Journal through the Freedom of Information Act. The city received 15 claims between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017 and denied them all.

Lansing potholes

2017 fiscal year

Claims submitted: 15

Average amount requested: $498.53

Total paid: $0

That falls in line with a longstanding pattern.

Less than 1% of the 284 pothole claims submitted to the city between 1999 and 2017 were granted, according to a log provided to the LSJ.

Of the claims submitted over those 18 years, only two were paid, according to the city's log.

There’s a reason why it’s so rare for Lansing to shell out for pothole damages. In many instances, state law shields the government from liability for road defects like potholes.

Under Michigan statute, a government entity is only liable if it knew or “should have known” of a pothole and had a “reasonable” amount of time to repair it before the injury took place.

It is assumed that the government knew of the pothole if the problem was “readily apparent” for at least 30 days prior to the damage.

In 2007, the city paid $419 because officials knew about a Saginaw Highway pothole but did not fix it within 30 days. The city paid that claim about five months after it was submitted.

Lansing paid $1,605, also in 2007, because a pothole reopened on Aurelius Road after an inadequate path job, Assistant City Attorney Amanda O'Boyle said. It took the city almost eight months to investigate and grant that claim.

Compared to the city of Lansing, the Michigan Department of Transportation has been somewhat more likely to pay pothole claims, though MDOT's website warns, "Please be advised that the majority of claims are denied under governmental immunity laws."  

More:

If you hit a pothole while driving on a state highway, you may file a claim with the corresponding MDOT regional office.

Last fiscal year, the state paid nine out of 267 claims for $1,000 or less, roughly a 3.4% reimbursement rate.

That reimbursement rate was 6.7% during the 2016 fiscal year and 3.1% during the 2015 fiscal year, according to numbers provided by MDOT. The state's fiscal year extends from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

If the cost of the damage was less than $1,000, drivers can file a claim using a form available on MDOT's website. Those seeking to be reimbursed for more than $1,000 will need to file a lawsuit against MDOT.

If the state does grant a claim, it will only pay for the extent of the damage not covered by the driver's insurance company.

'Insufficient notice'
In some cases, Lansing rejected claims because the road was under MDOT's jurisdiction In other cases, the city said the claimant did not provide sufficient detail about the pothole's location or the time of the collision.

The majority of claims were rejected, however, because the city claimed it did not know of the pothole before the collision. If it did know, the city maintained it did not have time to fix the pothole before the incident occurred.

Lansing officials cited insufficient prior notice to reject 10 of the 15 claims filed during the city's 2017 fiscal year. 

That's what happened to the driver who hit the Pennsylvania Avenue pothole on April 7. In response to his claim, the city wrote it did not "have any prior notice of any pot holes in this specific area prior to your report."

(Story continues below photo.)

The man, who said he was an engineer, sent the city a detailed description of the incident, complete with photos and car repair receipts.

After the man pulled into a nearby car wash parking lot to fix his tire, he claimed he encountered three other drivers there who told him they had fallen prey to that same pothole either that day or the day before.

The claimant's name, and the names of the other drivers, were redacted from records provided to the LSJ. The city cited privacy concerns.

The city received at least two other complaints about the pothole around noon on April 7 — the approximate time at which the engineer said his tire blew out — according to work orders attached to the city's investigation. Work orders show the pothole was patched just before 6 a.m. the next day.

F. Joseph Abood, chief deputy city attorney, said the city does not have a universal standard for what constitutes a "reasonable" amount of time to fix a pothole after being notified of its existence. 

"Each one of these cases is fact-specific," Abood said. "Quite frankly, I think you're going to find our response time is often not days, but hours."

Potholes form when water seeps through pavement and softens the ground underneath. When the water freezes, it expands and causes the pavement to crack. The problem gets worse as vehicles put repeated wear on the weakening asphalt.

Unsurpisingly, the claims filed with the city last fiscal year all detailed potholes that were present between January and April.

The city's goal is to respond to 95% of pothole reports within 24 hours, said Public Services Director Andrew Kilpatrick, though he said response times may lag somewhat during busy periods.

"This time of year, especially when we have freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, there's a surge in complaints," said Kilpatrick, who was promoted to department head this January after working as a city transportation engineer.

To request claim forms or to report a pothole via Lansing's 24-hour hotline call the Public Service Department at  (517) 483-4455. You can also report a pothole via the city's website or the Lansing Connect mobile application.

© 2018 Lansing State Journal


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